2011 had scarcely started before my life turned into a heaping pile of dog shit.
The Frisky was being sold to new owners and our jobs (and paychecks) were held in balance. My boyfriend started diddling around with some girl on the Internet, got caught, and dumped me. He asked me to move out of our apartment and I moved back into my childhood bedroom in the suburbs.
All this happened in the span of two weeks.
My life looked as bleak as the January freeze outside — which, incidentally, trapped me indoors with my parents during a blizzard for longer than should be considered legal under the Geneva Convention.
But friends, family and even strangers surprised me with their mercy in the days, weeks, and months that followed. My best friend, who lives an ocean away, called constantly. My sister drove me down to New Jersey to help me move out of my apartment. A reverend who I barely knew spent hours on the phone talking me down from ledges of broken confidence and self-hatred. Frisky readers wrote me the sweetest, most uplifting blog comments and emails that brought me to tears. Amelia let me sleep on her couch. As my life as I knew it fell apart, I saw the strength of my support system, which I hadn’t even known I had.
By springtime, The Frisky had new owners, money lined our bank accounts again, and I saved up enough to move out of my parents’ house. I furnished a new bedroom in a rental in New York City. I made some new close friends. I revived my online dating profile to kid-in-candy-store enjoyment. Cosmopolitan asked me to write an article for them. A well-known author asked me to help develop a concept for his next book. I wasn’t lying when I told people that my life had actually gotten better since the breakup.
And it has gotten better. Instead of going forward with the life that I thought I was going to have, I got a do-over. I could choose partners better suited to me, advocate for myself to have a more fulfilling sex life, seize professional opportunities without worrying that one day I may have to choose between them and someone else’s career. I did all these things. When I started seeing a therapist over the summer, what became clear to me was not “Whoa, I am really coo-coo bananas.” It was “Whoa, I am really resilient.”
But it would be too much of “a Hollywood ending” to end things there. I didn’t bounce back like a rubber band — not even close. Getting emotionally close — i.e., vulnerable — to new men felt very scary to me. I teared up on more than a couple first dates anytime a topic got too heavy, or I started to reveal too much of myself. My mind and heart would immediately go back to the sore spot where the betrayal and emotional cruelty still stung. This is why I started seeing a therapist.
It became apparent through therapy — and only becomes more apparent the longer I am in it — that I am very trustworthy and always assume the best in people. For the most part, I treat people the way that I would want to be treated and unconsciously, I assume everyone else is doing the same thing. People are good. People are kind. People care for others’ well-being. I didn’t weigh the evidence for or against certain people; I just saw in them what I wanted to see.
Logically, that’s a difficult way to live: it puts an awful lot of trust in people whether or not they deserve it. Ex-Mr. Jessica said he loved me, repeatedly. We’d lived together. We’d been planning a life by each other’s side. He had my heart between his teeth and he dropped it a blender on full-blast. I started to realize that most people are self-centered individuals — focused mostly on what serves them best — while I am an other-centered person. And that can feel like being the only puppy in a puppy-kicking contest. I saw how instead of giving out trust to people who had earned it, I expected others to treat me with care “just because.” Instead of being giving to people who were reciprocal, I gave and gave and gave until I felt resentful and used. The more it became clear to me that most people are self-centered, the more I saw how, by not being self-centered I was, in a way, letting people hurt me by giving them more opportunities to do so.
That became the question — the big question — that has loomed in my mind over the past several months: Why are people so self-centered at the expense of others? Why doesn’t everyone just look out for each other? Why aren’t people good and kind and trustworthy “just because”? Why are people unkind and deceitful, even to the ones they love? And most importantly, how are you supposed to trust anyone if you know human beings can be this way?
Muddling this confusion even more was the concomitant realization that not all people are selfish. I know firsthand how caring, thoughtful and loving people could be. If my friends, family and co-workers hadn’t been there to break my fall last January, I shudder to think how much more pain I would have suffered. Besides, if I’m an other-centered person, there must be more other-centered people out there. I can’t be the only puppy.
But, how am I supposed to tell if someone is trustworthy? How am I supposed to know if someone will appreciate being treated with care by me and will reciprocate in kind? How am I supposed to know if someone is only concerned with himself or herself, everyone else be damned? How am I supposed to know if someone is a puppy or a puppy-kicker?
These questions began to overwhelm my mind as fall became winter. (Incidentally this is also when I started a relationship with a new man, who has borne the brunt of my philosophical musings on this topic.) When I say overwhelm, I do mean they preoccupied me: instead of just reading people’s actions as indicative of just their behavior or their feelings in that one moment, I wondered if each person was one of the “good” ones. Were they selfish? Were they untrustworthy? Were they fundamentally kind?
This is an exhausting way to live your life, to say nothing of it being a not particularly enjoyable one. There really are no hard-and-fast answers to these questions with most of the people you will come across in life. The only way to protect oneself, I think, is to be less giving and trusting with people until they have earned it. I don’t necessarily have to become a self-centered person in a bad way, in the way other people have been to me. But I can be more self-centered in the sense that I’m self-protecting and self-preserving. If I stop looking at all people as basically good and kind without proof, then I’ll let them show their true colors to me themselves. I’ll have evidence backing up whether I should trust them or not. I won’t just put my faith in people unearned.
I was talking about all this recently with my friend Kate (Torgovnick, who, of course, used to work at The Frisky). She pointed out to me how I needed to factor in that lots of people feel guilty for the bad things that they do. She even predicted Ex-Mr. Jessica will probably feel guilty some day (if he doesn’t already) for the way he treated me after the breakup. That’s when something clicked: instead of asking whether people are basically good, or basically bad, I realized that it doesn’t matter. Nope, it doesn’t matter. Instead, I realized people are basically stupid when it comes to other people’s feelings. That’s it. They’re stupid.
People are neither good nor bad, neither fundamentally kind nor fundamentally self-centered. They’re a combination of both and spectacularly terrible at being the right thing at the right time. It may not sound like assuming other people are “basically stupid” is a compassionate way to go through the world. Maybe it isn’t. But I know it’s enabled me to be more forgiving of others in my life, from those who are close to me to those who are veritable strangers. I’m no longer ripping my own hair out with these heavy questions about whether people are “good” or not. I’m not giving people the benefit of the doubt that they’re all as concerned with other people’s feelings as I might be; instead, I’m giving people the benefit of the doubt that their bad behavior is just the result of ignorance.
That’s not a Hollywood ending, either. But it is the way I’m happy to be opening up 2012: still a puppy, but one with eyes wide open.
Contact the author of this post at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. Follow me on Twitter at @JessicaWakeman.